Tumbleweed Fever, Part 3 by LJ Maas

Sarah couldn't remember what pulled her awake first, the freezing cold, the rain pouring down in buckets on top of her, or the agonizing screams of the large, black stallion that still lay on top of her right leg. The light was gone as darkness enveloped them, the only source of illumination, the brilliant streaks of lightning across the sky. With every flash of light, the horse jerked himself upward, screaming in pain, not only pulling painfully on Sarah's leg, but also causing them to slide further downhill.

Another flash of light and Sarah nearly screamed herself at the cause of the horse's agony. His front legs were broken badly, the limbs bent at odd angles. The hoof on one foot had been torn away completely. The unfortunate animal jerked and twitched in pain as Sarah sobbed useless words of comfort to her longtime companion.

Blowing on her frozen fingers to bend them, she slid her Winchester from its long leather holster. With a pain in her heart that she'd never had to bear before, she leveled the barrel of the gun at the horse's head.

The wind and the rain beat against the rider, straining her eyes in the darkness. She had unrolled her long duster she kept behind her saddle as soon as the rain began to come down, but even the leather jacket she wore underneath couldn't quite keep out the sting of cold that seeped through.

A shattering sound like thunder caught the rider's attention. It sounded more like the crack of a rifle, than the clap of thunder. She spurred Alto toward the distant sound.

Reaching a fallen tree that had evidently been struck by lightning, the rider knew Sarah could not have passed by the huge timber, which thoroughly blocked the path. She stopped and retraced her trail half a dozen times, but kept returning to the fallen tree. Dismounting, she walked along the edge of the path, searching for any signs of the young woman. She stopped at a spot on the edge of the rocky path that looked like gravel had been thrown about.

Grabbing the lantern from her saddle, she pushed her body back into a niche in the rock to light the kerosene lantern. Peering over the edge of the hill of crushed rock, Dev couldn't be sure, but she thought she could make out a dark shadow.

"Sarah!" The rider screamed out.

"Dev?" She heard the weak reply.

Tossing her rope over an outcropping of rock, she looped it around her own waist and made her way down the unstable hill of gravel. The rider started out about six feet to one side of where she thought Sarah was, so she wouldn't be pelting the woman with loose gravel on her way down.

"Sarah," Dev's voice cracked with emotion, but she didn't even care.

She scrambled beside the fallen woman, but not before her weight shifted into the horse, causing the young woman to slide down the hill a few more feet.

"D--Dev," Sarah started in a hoarse voice, "D--Don't hang on to me! I--I had to shoot T--Telem--achus. M--My foot is c--caught in the stirrup. He'll d--drag you d--down."

Sarah was freezing and couldn't stop shivering enough to keep her teeth from chattering together.

Devlin pulled the Winchester free of its holster and placed it gently on the rock next to Sarah. Next, she pulled the large bladed knife free from her boot. She slowly began to ease her hand between the dead horse and Sarah's leg, stopping whenever she felt a shift in the horse's weight. After long moments, she could feel Sarah's booted foot, the stirrup snugly pressed up against her heel. The rain stung as it blew into her eyes, while she carefully sliced through the leather that held the young woman's leg prisoner.

"It's going to hurt when I pull, Sarah." She warned the woman.

"I--It's okay…I--I'm too c--cold t--to feel it." Sarah replied shakily.

Dev held on to Sarah with one arm around her waist and another around her shoulder. The rider placed one boot on the stallion's rump and gently pushed. It didn't take much as the sliding rock carried the horse down the hill and off of Sarah's leg.

Dev didn't wait another minute. She wrapped her arms around the small woman and held her body tightly to her own.

"Dammit, Sarah, you scared the hell out of me…couldn't you have listened to me…just once!" The frightened rider cursed.

"Hey, I--I'm h--having a b--bad day h--here t--too…poor T--Telem--machus." Sarah looked down the hill into the darkness, then finally gave into the tears.

"I know…I know, I'm sorry." The rider said sadly into her ear, holding her tighter. "Sarah, you're freezing to death. Come on, hold onto me, we've got to get you somewhere so I can light a fire."

Devlin held onto the small woman with strong arms, pulling the two of them up the wall of rock. The rain still fell, but the wind had eased up a bit and the rider was able to examine the young woman's leg under the light of the lantern. It was a good thing she had on leather riding boots; they bore the brunt of the damage. Above the boot, however, at mid calf, Sarah's pants had been torn away by the gravel. The tattered flesh was raw and bleeding up the rest of her leg, bits of dirt and gravel embedded deep in the cuts. The only reason she wasn't in complete agony was because she was freezing cold and couldn't feel anything yet.

Sarah could hardly move a muscle. She was sore, scared and frozen. Dev easily lifted the young woman into her arms and mounted Alto. She couldn't get past the fallen tree without going the long way around and Sarah was hardly up to that. The young woman was tucked in the saddle in front of Devlin, the rider's long duster wrapped around the two of them, but it was hours back to the cabin. She headed up away from the path and pulled Alto to a stop in front of a dense patch of cedar trees. The tops of the trees intertwined perfectly so that the ground underneath was soft and dry.

Once the rider dismounted, she sat Sarah on the ground, her back against the tree. The rider stripped Alto of saddlebags and saddle and tied the large mare under a stand of trees where she too could stay somewhat dry. Dev couldn't get the tinder to catch the wet wood, so she poured some of the kerosene on the logs and they had a roaring blaze in no time. The kerosene made the fire smoke a bit more, but Dev didn't think there would be anyone to trouble them on a night like this. Now she had to decide whether to work on Sarah's leg first or get the woman out of her soaking clothes. She quickly opted for the young woman's injured leg, knowing the extreme pain involved in cleaning a wound like this, and she wanted to get it over with before feeling began to seep into the injured woman's limbs.

"Sarah…I need to clean your leg up. It's going to hurt like nothing you've ever felt before, but it has to be done."

Sarah's eyes look like a frightened rabbit's, but she nodded to the rider.

Dev laid her bedroll on the ground close to the fire. It was slightly damp, but she saved the dry inner blanket to wrap around Sarah once she removed her wet clothes. She turned Sarah's ankle and poked and prodded until she was satisfied that the ankle wasn't broken, then she removed the woman's boots. Next came what was left of the young woman's torn and shredded pants. Dev helped Sarah remove her soaked jacket and quickly wrapped the rider's dry one around the small woman. Dev removed her own shirt and just as quickly removed the white cotton shirt she wore underneath. Sarah remembered thinking that if she hadn't been in so much pain she would have been thoroughly enjoying the site of the naked rider.

Looking up at Sarah, Dev caught the woman staring at her body, and she nervously put her shirt back on.

"See, isn't it a good thing you make me wear a clean shirt everyday?" The rider asked the woman as she began tearing the white cotton undergarment into thin strips. Poised over Sarah's right leg, the young woman leaning on her left side, Dev lifted up a canteen of water.

"Ready?" She asked.

Sarah nodded and prepared for the worst. It didn't seem too bad at first until the combination of the fire and the water brought back a little sensation to her previously unfeeling skin. The bad part started when the rider began to gently scrub the dirt and embedded gravel from the wounds. Sarah cried out, then started crying in earnest. About halfway through, the rider paused to let the young woman catch her breath.

Tears filled Dev's own eyes at Sarah's pain. She offered her a drink of water and stroked her wet hair, brushing it from her face. They stayed this way until the rider judged that the young woman's breathing wasn't too ragged anymore.

"Just a little bit more, honey," Dev whispered against Sarah's skin and the young woman nodded, the term of endearment that the rider let slip lost on her.

Once again Devlin began the laborious task of tending the wound. The dark-haired woman closed her ears to Sarah's cries of pain, knowing that if she stopped now, she wouldn't have the heart to begin again. By the time Dev had finished and was wrapping the makeshift strips of bandage around Sarah's leg, the young woman's tears had turned to the hiccup stage. The rider was proud of her, not knowing if she would have held up any better.

The rider didn't even ask first, she quickly began removing the rest of the smaller woman's clothing and draping them over some low hanging branches by the fire. If the circumstances hadn't been so extreme and Dev hadn't been terrified over what would happen to Sarah, she might have had time to enjoy the exquisite body, she carefully wrapped in a dry blanket. As it was, she could only think of the task at hand. Throwing a couple additional limbs on the already blazing fire, she lay down beside the shivering woman, rubbing her skin through the blanket to try and generate a little heat into the freezing woman's frame.

Sarah's teeth were chattering so loudly, Dev didn't think the young woman would ever be able to relax. She got up and kicked a few stones from the fire where she had initially set them. Moving them with the toe of her boot, she placed the warm rocks under the edge of the bedroll that Sarah was laying on, then proceeded to lie down again on the other side of the shaking woman.

Dev reached under the blanket and rubbed her warm hands along the young woman's arms and back.

"How c--can you b--be so warm?" Sarah asked, amazed at the rider's fortitude.

"I'm just that way," she smiled. "Does this bother you Sarah…being so, uhm, close?"

"I-I don't w-want you t-to take this the wrong w--way, D-Dev, but right now I-I'd lay d-down with John M-Montgomery to g-get warm!"

Dev laughed and pulled the young woman so she was laying more on the rider's body, than the blanket. At least she's still got her sense of humor…and that fight in her…I have a feeling she's gonna need them both.

If Dev would have had a choice, what she was about to do wouldn't have happened, but something about desperate times rang through her head. She unbuttoned her own shirt, pulling it from her shoulders, and pressed Sarah's chilled skin against her own warm flesh, which was growing more heated by the minute. The feel of Sarah's breasts pressing into her own were doing dangerous things to Dev's brain, but she could feel Sarah's skin respond and begin to warm. Her hands continued to caress the young woman's skin until Dev finally heard the chattering of Sarah's teeth subside. It must have been her imagination, but she thought she felt the young woman's breath quicken at her delicate touch. Finally she felt Sarah snuggle against her neck, the woman's deep, even breathing tickling her throat.

Dev woke up in the middle of the night to a parched throat and sweat rolling off her body. She was burning up, but suddenly realized that it wasn't her body that burned. She rolled Sarah off of her and onto the young woman's own back.

"Sarah," Dev watched as the young woman struggled to open her eyes, but it seemed as if she was unable to focus. Her eyes closed again and she mumbled a few words, Devlin was incapable of grasping what she said.

"Sarah, wake up…come on," She stroked the unresponsive woman's cheek, that burned with it's own fire.

Even though Sarah's body burned with fever, she shivered uncontrollably. Dev jumped up and began to pull her own clothes on, then replaced Sarah's now dry clothes. This isn't good, Sarah…this isn't good at all.

Packing their blankets, she saddled Alto and started up further into the mountains, Sarah tucked safely in front of her. The rider feared for the unconscious woman, knowing her own healing skills wouldn't be enough this time. It was too far for the young woman to travel back to town and a doctor, and there was only one place and one group of people Devlin trusted enough to care for this woman lying in her arms. She urged Alto on, into the hills of the Thunderbird Clan.

Dev knew they watched her as she navigated Alto through the hazardous rock formations that overlooked the Prairie. The mare wasn't used to the extra burden, but she bore the additional weight, picking her way among the large boulders. The eyes that watched them were curious, but silent, following the two women all the way into the camp. Others would have been forced to stop before they were allowed to reach the encampment of the Thunderbird Clan, but the night watch knew Redhawk. The woman, who was as fierce a warrior as any brave among them, was the granddaughter of their chief, and earned the respect they showed her.

The sun was a short way from rising over the eastern hills as Devlin entered the silent camp. The rain and the wind had long since ceased, but the cold rush of air told her winter would soon be here. She dismounted, taking care not to jostle the woman in her arms. The tall rider bent to one knee, rubbing a handful of the red earth on the top of each of Sarah's hands, then doing the same to her own hands. This was a sign of respect when entering the camp, to thank the Spirits for providing the earth beneath their feet.

Dev knew where she would go. Keeho was an excellent healer, but his visions had a tendency to frighten the rider. She had seen too many of them become truth to feel comfortable around the old man. If she needed a dream interpreted, she would seek out Keeho. What she needed now was someone who knew the ways of herbs and the human body, someone who could dream something pleasant. She headed straight for Tima's teepee. It didn't matter that she had painted new totems on it, Dev knew that Tima was a widow now and without a brave to provide for her, she would have to go back to her father's fire. Being the widow of two brothers earned Tima the right to her own lodging, but it would always be set to the right of her father, Chief Kontonalah.

Dev knelt on the ground at the entrance to the tent.

"Tima, tiana ko…Tima…" The owners of a lodging had no obligation to answer anyone outside their tent in the middle of the night, but Dev hoped the term of endearment she used to call her Clan mother, tiana (smiling one), would prompt the woman to answer.

The woman that came to the entrance and pulled the deer hide flap aside was perhaps fifteen years older than the rider. Lines began to etch her brown skin around her mouth and at the corners of her eyes, but they were a testament to the fact that she smiled every chance she could. Her long black hair was swept through with gray, a blanket held closely around her shoulders. She smiled when she saw the tall woman's face, but it quickly turned into a frown when she realized what her daughter held in her arms. Motioning the rider into her home, Dev quickly carried Sarah in and laid her out on the soft buffalo robe her mother gestured to.

The story spilled out of her mouth, half in English, half in the language of the Clan. Her eyes filled with tears as she told of the young woman's injury. She sat back as her mother cupped a loving hand under her cheek and whispered soft words of comfort. It was so easy for Dev to be open around Tima, in that respect the older woman was exactly like Sarah. The two most important women in Dev's life had the same honest and loving natures.

Tima knew, before her daughter even stepped foot into the camp, that she would be here soon. The older woman had a dream, and her dreams always came to pass. She pulled the blanket away and all the young woman's clothing, pushing them in a pile. Her hands could feel the death that hung over the white woman. This will have to be where we start. She felt it on her daughter too, didn't she? It was when she first touched her.

"Come here and kneel," Tima commanded.

Dev quickly complied, trying to stare anywhere but at Sarah's naked body, lying before her.

Tima ran her hands through the rider's hair and across her arms.

"Have you killed recently?" There was no time for subtleties.

"It's been a long while." Dev answered. This seemed to surprise the older woman.

"You both have the feel of it on you," Tima replied.

Dev's mind raced back through her time with Sarah, and then it struck her.

"Telemachus…Sarah had to put her horse down, his legs were broke," she explained.

Tima resumed her gentle caresses of the girl's body. "Yes," she muttered. "Burn this…all of it," she pushed the pile of Sarah's clothes and blanket toward her daughter. "Your clothes too…boots, all of it. We must remove this shima before he pulls your little Salmon away, too.

Devlin would have told most people they were insane and she wasn't about to burn a twenty-dollar pair of boots, but this was Tima. All living creatures had a shima, and her mother felt the black stallion's shima trying to take Sarah's life to wherever Telemachus had passed over. Tima had the gift and when she displayed concern in her voice, then there was definitely something to worry about. Dev quickly stripped off every stitch of clothing she wore, including her hat and boots. Damn good thing I put my guns in my saddlebags.

Tima went into a dark recess in the teepee and brought out a large basket. Pulling the lid off, she reached in and unfolded a deerskin blanket, symbols of power and strength painted along the outside edges. She put this aside; she would need to cleanse the young woman first. She dug deeper and handed the buckskin outfit to her daughter.

Dev looked at the clothes she was being given and immediately recognized them, right down to the knee-high moccasin boots. Her adopted father, Tekola was a tall man; his clothes would fit the rider easily.

Tima gave careful instructions on how Devlin was to cleanse her body, first burning the clothes by the lake. Dev turned to go, not caring she was leaving the confines of the lodging completely naked. Most of these people had seen her naked at one time or another. Now, she looked back at Sarah, pain in her blue eyes, until Tima had to nearly push her from the tent.

"You must live, little Salmon…I would very much like to hear your tale of Redhawk," Tima asked the unresponsive woman as she mixed herbs into a large bowl, "how does a little fish, catch such a fierce bird of prey, hmmm?"

Dev burned everything that Sarah came in contact with. Including the rider's custom saddle. She wouldn't take any chances with the young woman's well being. Using the herbs Tima gave her, she washed her hair and body in the freezing lake water, and then proceeded to dress in the leathers her mother had given her. Aw, shit! I can't believe I forgot about this.

The soft leather outfit was typical male dress. The pants Dev slipped her legs into were more like leggings that tied at the hips…nothing to cover the crotch, or backside. A beaded loincloth covered those parts and a decorative leather shirt pulled over her head. The shirt only covered her hips, the cold, early morning air hitting parts of her body that were used to being covered. The look didn't bother her at all. She would simply look like every other Clan warrior over the age of maturity.

Dev paused at the entrance of the lodging.

"Tiana?" She asked permission of her mother to enter.

"Come," the older woman commanded.

Tima sat next to Sarah, trying to coax the woman to drink one of her teas, but having little success. She looked up at her daughter and smiled broadly at the familiar sight of her beloved mate's leathers.

"She will take it from you," Tima said, holding out the wooden bowl.

"How do you know?" Dev asked, slipping an arm around Sarah's shoulder to raise her head.

"A mother always knows her daughter's heart…I know." Tima replied cryptically.

Sarah opened her eyes and was sure she was dreaming. Devlin knelt by her side, dressed like an Indian brave. She wanted to reach out and touch the rider's face, but Sarah couldn't make the muscles in her hands and arms work. It almost felt like she was floating.

"You are so beautiful," Sarah whispered instead.

Dev's eyes sparkled and she could feel a hot flush rise to her face.

"Thank you," she grinned.

"Dev, I'm so hot," she complained trying to push the leather covering off of her fevered body.

The rider held the young woman's hands to stop her.

"Sarah, I need you to drink some of this. It will help you get well." Dev said, raising the bowl to the sick woman's lips.

Sarah took a small sip and swallowed the sweet liquid.

"Where are we," Sarah asked weakly.

"We're in the village of the Thunderbird Clan, you kept asking me to bring you here, remember?" Dev replied as she encouraged the young woman to drink again.

Sarah turned her head toward the older woman. Tima offered her a smile that was filled with the light of the sun. Sarah's questioning face turned again to the rider, the younger woman's eyes appearing heavy as she struggled to keep them open.

"That's Tima," Dev introduced her mother.

"I like her smile," Sarah whispered after taking another sip of the tea.

Dev pulled the young woman closer to her and gently kissed her forehead.

"If you call her tiana, she'll smile even more for you."

Dev realized Sarah had fallen asleep again. She tried to wake her, but Tima stilled her hand.

"She needs to rest before the next step." Tima said.

Dev had no idea what the next step was to be, but she swore to herself, she would do anything to have her Sarah back.

As morning approached, Sarah's fever burned hotter and she developed a cough that wracked her whole body. None of Tima's medicines were able to stop the fever and chills that plagued the young woman, and when the terrible coughing began, Sarah's weak body began to run out of strength quickly. The muscles in her torso ached from the constant hacking, until she could scarcely expand her chest to take a breath. Dev held the small woman in her arms, helping her to sit up when she would wake and the coughing fits would overtake her, but soon Sarah fell deeper into the fever and became completely unresponsive. Before long, her respirations came only in small gasps, as her lungs struggled to take in air.

All the rider could do was hold Sarah in her arms helplessly. A woman of action, Devlin felt more impotent with each passing moment. She could only watch as Sarah's life slipped slowly away.

"Do you see her shima?" Dev asked her mother. The older woman sat close by, mixing together a new combination of herbs to try.

Tima looked up from her work and stared at the small woman wrapped in her daughter's arms.

"Yes. It is thin, but her will is strong…but, sometimes one's will alone cannot hold on to shima." Tima replied, watching her daughter caress the young woman's face and gently run her fingers through hair the color of sunlight.

"Does she know?" Tima asked.

Dev raised a confused face to her mother.

"That you love her," the older woman continued.

"No." The rider whispered, returning to gaze down at the flushed face of the woman who held her heart.

"Will you tell her?" Tima questioned further.

Dev ran her fingertips against the warm, smooth edge of Sarah's cheek before answering.

"No…I--I can't lose this…what we already have…I--I can't take that chance," she replied, forcing the sobs that threatened to break loose, back into her throat.

"That doesn't sound like you Rhana…unwilling to take risk?" Tima said softly.

Dev smiled sadly at her mother, enjoying the way Tima's pet name for her rolled off the older woman's tongue.

"It's different outside the Clan…Sarah is different…the white man doesn't…they don't accept it, women together." Dev said brokenly, all the love in her heart making itself visible within her facial features. "I'll just have to be happy with the way things are," the rider murmured quietly.

"It's been two days," Dev nearly hissed as Tima placed a poultice on Sarah's chest, then covered it with a rabbit skin.

The older woman worked slowly and methodically, not giving in to the same panic Devlin seemed to have developed, but she finally lost her patience with her daughter.

"Go…go outside," Tima said sharply, pushing the rider from the tent. "Your worry will kill the girl!"

Tima turned her back on her daughter, but not before she caught the wounded look in Devlin's eyes. She had not meant for her words to be so harsh, but her dreams last night made her irritable. More than irritable, she was frightened for her little Salmon. Last night as she slept, she watched as the young woman's shima finally gave up and left her body. All the while, Devlin stood with her back to Sarah, ignoring her pleas. Tima knew the dream would become truth unless her daughter would listen to her own heart.

The rider slipped back into the lodging and watched as her mother sang and rocked Sarah in her arms. Now she felt as if her heart were breaking.

"Ko wantay ah noa, Tiana," Devlin's contrite head bowed to her mother, asking for forgiveness.

Tima lay the small woman's body back onto the blankets, then turned and opened her arms for her daughter. She accepted Devlin's apology and held the larger woman as Dev's heartbreak turned into tears for her beloved Sarah. For a long time Dev lay cradled in the arms of her mother, until Tima finally broke the silence.

"She needs more help than I can give," Tima started to say. "I have spoken with your grandfather…it is time to send up smoke.

Dev pulled away to look into her mother's face.

"It is all we have left." Tima finished.

Dev's jaw tightened, the corded tendons in her neck twitching slightly. To send up smoke meant only one thing. The elders and healers would gather around the ailing individual's family as they sent up the sacred smoke, along with their prayers. The smoke would alert the Great Spirit that they needed the Spirit's help. The only problem was that Sarah had no family here…the closest thing she had to family was Devlin.

Tima watched her daughter war with herself as she realized what her mother was telling her. She understood what she was asking of Devlin, but it would be a test of her daughter's commitment to Sarah, to see it the rider would acquiesce. Tima's own heart remembered the pain the last time she made such a request of her daughter. Her mate, Tekola lay on his deathbed. Tima had begged Devlin to walk around the medicine wheel and send up the smoke with her, but the proud young woman refused, seemingly unable to kneel to man or Spirits, even in exchange for her father's life.

Devlin stood and ran both hands through her raven hair. Her eyes darted nervously back and forth and she searched her brain for another way.

Tima had not meant to tell her daughter of her vision, but she saw Devlin teetering on the brink of indecision. The older woman would have to make her daughter look into her heart if Salmon's shima were to be kept with them in the land of the living.

"I had a dream last night…about your little Salmon," Tima finally admitted.

Devlin sat down again, next to her mother. "Why didn't you tell me."

"I'm telling you now," Tima replied matter of factly. The older woman paused for a moment, Devlin's blue eyes burning with questions. Tima told her daughter all she had dreamed, then sat back and watched as dark clouds of pain passed across Devlin's face.

All Dev could do was look at Sarah, lying helpless on the ground. The rider understood the meaning of her mother's dream easily enough. Dev was the only one who could offer up smoke on the young woman's behalf, and it was the one thing the dark-haired woman couldn't do.

Silent minutes passed until the rider stood and left the tent. "I can't," she whispered to her mother.

The rider sat among the jagged rocks, listening to the sound of the water falling into the deep pool below. This was where she would come and hide as a child. Although she had already killed a man by the time she had been adopted by Tima and Tekola, she was little more than a girl in her heart. Children's cruel remarks can cut deep and many times Redhawk would go up to the rocks to get away and find what little peace in her soul was to be had.

What her mother asked of her, no what was expected of her, tore at her heart. Didn't she admit that she would do anything for Sarah…didn't she love her that much? How many times would she have to suffer through the death of someone she loved? How long had she waited for a woman to come into her life that was everything her Sarah was?

She remembered what it felt like living within the Clan…the first time she was able to look at a woman openly, the freedom she felt at not having to hide her feelings of appreciation for another woman's beauty. Whereas the white man had called her an abomination, these people thought she was blessed. She quickly realized she wasn't the only member of the Clan that had feelings like that for the same sex. The tribe looked at this as a gift, like being a healer, or a medicine woman. It wasn't something everyone was called to do; therefore they considered it something special bestowed upon human beings from the Great Spirit.

When she grew older and left the Clan, she used sex as a tool, a weapon of power over the men she commanded. It wasn't as if she hadn't enjoyed herself, physically, but her release couldn't be brought about unless she was in total control. Sex, for all intents and purposes, was a mere physical act…nothing more. The only emotion she allowed herself, was the thrilling feeling of her partner's complete surrender, a sort of sexual victory…a conquest. To her brain, sentiments like love only made you weak. Because of this there were always things she never let men do to her, and in turn, acts she never performed on them. She would never bow or give up control to anyone. Back then, sex had all the pleasure of a written negotiation.

But, now there was Sarah. How she longed to love Sarah that way, to give herself up to the young blonde's loving touch. Such a beautiful woman…such a proud spirit…what a passionate lover she would be, Devlin thought.

The dark-haired woman could scarcely hold the heartache in as she balled her slender hands into fists, throwing back her head she howled out her frustration to the sky. She let the tears come, holding her head in her hands. Sometimes looking into one's heart can come at such a price. After all these years, the rider finally understood the union between emotion and sex. It had taken this tiny farm girl from Kentucky to give Dev back what the dark-haired rider had waited so long to find again…her soul.

"What good will smoke be, with no prayer to follow?" Keeho shook his head sadly to Tima.

Chief Kontonalah and the elders sat in a semi circle, the ring closed at one end by Sarah's prone figure, the sound of her wheezing filling the tent. Kontonalah would have liked to speak to his granddaughter, but she was nowhere to be found. If Redhawk did not want to be found…she would not be.

A cold draft of air swept through the lodging as the deer hide flap was swept aside. The figure that entered caused a number of silent nods, and even a few low whispers, but it was Tima whose gray eyes misted over at the sight.

Devlin knelt before her grandfather in respect, the old man placing a gentle hand on her head. In turn, the rider knelt before each elder. When Dev knelt before her mother, Tima could barely form words; her pride in her daughter was so great. Dev looked anxiously at her mother and seemed to relax when the older woman nodded her approval. Finally the rider knelt before Keeho, the healer. The old man held out two small jars of paint, one red and one black. Dipping his index finger into one color and his middle finger in the other, he let his coated fingertips glide against the skin of the rider's cheek, then he repeated the process on the other side.

Devlin stood before the small fire in the middle of the circle as a bundle of dried sage was carefully placed within the flames. Once the smoke started to rise in thin tendrils around the rider's body, she drew it to her in cupped hands, washing it over her body, in a ritual act of cleansing.

Dev made her way to stand over Sarah. She would visualize the Thunderbird Clan's interpretation of the Medicine Wheel in her mind. It was then that the rider performed the most difficult act of her life. Keeping her eyes on the face of the beautiful woman who had saved her life and her soul, she dropped to her knees. Raising her hands over her head, the palms facing each other, the rider bent and bowed to the earth three times. The third time her body bent over, she continued to lie against the ground, while the chants of the elders began.

Tima watched her young daughter through tear filled eyes. The woman, who would humble herself to neither man nor God, prostrated herself in the ultimate act of submission for the life of her soulmate.

Even as the elders behind her continued to sing and chant, Devlin had finished her prayers and made her way to Sarah. Sitting behind the young woman, the rider tenderly pulled the unconscious form into her lap, wrapping her strong arms around the still figure. Dev turned her face into the young woman's hair and breathed in the scent of sage. The dried herb that was being burned permeated the air, and its pleasant odor clung to Sarah's skin. The rider's lips gently brushed along the heated skin of Sarah's temple as she rocked the woman in her embrace.

Devlin had finally come to that illusive place in her life; the one her grandfather had talked about, where all points converged. Some people never came to that segment in their lives; some passed it by, never recognizing it for what it was. As the rider held the ill woman in her arms, she realized this was her time. Everything she ever knew, had ever felt became as nothing compared to what she was experiencing at this instant. Everyone and everything else in the tent disappeared into a shadow. There was only Sarah, Devlin's love for the young woman, and the supplications of a dark warrior, whose prayers rose up on the wings of the sacred smoke.

Tima pulled the deerskin flap to one side and entered the large teepee. The heavy smell of healing herbs still hung in the air, immediately assaulting her nostrils. The older woman slept with relatives last night, leaving her daughter alone with her companion. Devlin still lay much as Tima had left her last night, her arms wrapped protectively around the small blonde woman, whose back was pulled tightly to the rider's chest. It appeared as if both women still slept soundly.

Tima felt a sudden presence and when she turned, she noticed eyelashes fluttering open, displaying green eyes. The young woman unconsciously entwined her fingers with those of the rider's that lay splayed across her abdomen. She leaned back against the rider's chest ever so slightly, the tiniest bit of her mouth curling upward in a smile. Tima smiled at the young woman's actions. Rhana should not have feared telling her.

Sarah suddenly became conscious of the older woman's gaze, and her cheerful smile. Quickly disentangling her fingers from the rider's hand, she smiled back at the woman.

"Our prayers were answered quickly," Tima said, moving over and placing a hand against Sarah's forehead. The young woman's face felt cool to the touch and she breathed easy, no signs of the terrible cough left. Sarah struggled with her aching muscles to sit up.

Sarah's Choctaw wasn't perfect and even though she spoke in halting, unsure tones, Tima understood perfectly. Sarah surprised herself, by understanding most if not everything the other woman told her about the past few days.

Tima brought a waterskin and hot broth, both of which Sarah promptly made disappear. Devlin slept heavily through all of this.

"Tima…is there a place I can go to wash, to clean up? Between you and me, I feel like day old trash," Sarah said shyly. Tima nodded quickly, her heart soared at the recovery the little blonde made seemingly overnight. Understanding the small woman's need for modesty, she wrapped a soft robe of rabbit and fox skins around her and helped her to her feet. Sarah felt wobbly and unsure of her steps, but the older woman's strength surprised her, and Sarah ended up leaning heavily upon Tima.

Tima went very slowly, wrapping a strong arm around Sarah's waist. Sarah's leg was a little sore, but the cuts had begun to heal nicely. A young woman of perhaps fourteen or fifteen ran up to the pair. She grinned at Sarah, beginning to ramble on about what an honor it was to meet her.

"Little Dove," Tima scolded, "Let the poor girl get her feet under her first.

Little Dove looked heartbroken and Sarah couldn't help but smile at the young girl. Why she thinks I'm something special, I'll never know.

"It's allright, Tima. It's very nice to meet you Little Dove," said in a halting tongue.

Little Dove wanted to meet this woman for herself. She had a teenage crush on Redhawk for two seasons; always hoping the tall warrior would notice her whenever the rider visited the camp. She had heard from older girls that the small stranger was Redhawk's mate, and that the beautiful dark-haired woman had prayed and cried in anguish at the thought of losing her beloved. When the young girl saw the white woman's smile and easy demeanor, she knew in an instant why the tall warrior had given her heart away to this stranger. And, as teenage hearts are fickle things, Little Dove switched allegiances and began to lose her heart to the small woman with the captivating green eyes.

Tima watched and knew Little Dove's crush to be misplaced, but she said nothing, then she shook her head. Oh, to be so young again.

"Little Dove…you may do Salmon a service," she began.

The actual word was favor, but Sarah couldn't seem to translate the word and had to settle for service in her understanding of the Clan's language.

"Salmon needs something to wear…perhaps you have something that would fit her?" Tima asked.

Little Doves eyes literally lit up and she rushed away to her family's lodging.

Tima and Sarah shared quiet laughter at the young girl's youth and enthusiasm.

"It's not like Dev…uhm, Redhawk to sleep so sound…do you think she is allright?" Sarah asked Tima, once they arrived at a secluded pool portion of the river. The weather had warmed considerably as if summer were only beginning, not ending.

"She has been awake for many days and nights watching over you, little Salmon…it's good my daughter sleeps now."

"Dev is your daughter? I mean, Redhawk…I'm sorry, but I'm not used to calling her that." Sarah sounded surprised.

"Yes," Tima smiled proudly. She went on to explain that Redhawk was just entering womanhood, still a young girl when she came to the Clan. Tima and her mate, Tekola gladly raised the beautiful girl as their own. She was headstrong and stubborn, but also proved to be brave and intensely loyal. When her new daughter finally confided to her mother that she preferred to take another woman as a mate instead of a brave, Tekola taught her the ways of the warrior so she would be able to provide for a companion in her life. Tima went on to tell Sarah some amusing stories about little Redhawk's formative years. Sarah knew the rider would be livid if she realized they were talking about her this way, but Sarah was fascinated with the dark-haired beauty she was so in love with. She felt she needed this connection, and so she hung on Tima's every word.

"She came right out and told you then…that she wanted to take a woman as a mate?" Sarah asked timidly, as Tima helped the woman wash her hair in the cool water of the river.

Tima remembered what Redhawk said about the white man's culture, that he did not accept and even condemned those who were given the gift. So sad to treat special ones so. She decided to be honest with the little one, but she also wanted to learn if the young woman's heart truly held love for her daughter.

"Yes, it was not until she felt that I would not betray her trust, though. She told me of the way the white man feels about those with the gift. It must not be easy for those who must live with all the white man's rules." She finished with a look of compassion. Tima went on to explain the way the Clan felt about this gift.

Sarah was astounded that these people took the idea of women together so easily. It gave her cause to hope, however. At least now she had her confirmation that Devlin did indeed prefer women. Now, all Sarah had to do was to figure out a way for her to become that woman. I can't even believe I'm thinking like that, but it's what I feel, isn't it?

"Did Dev…I mean, Redhawk…did she ever take a mate?" Sarah asked.

The young woman tried to make her question sound nonchalant, but Tima could not be fooled so easily. She heard the real question in the young woman's voice…saw the twinge of envy in her intelligent eyes. She would have to answer this one carefully.

"No, she never found the heart she would give up her wild ways for. She has always been like the Puma. Wild and fierce, but I heard a story once, of a woman who was said to have tamed a Puma. She was the only one the creature would appear tame around, where she went; the animal followed. It is said that the woman's spirit so thoroughly captured the heart of the wild animal, that when her shima left this earth to fly with the Spirits, the beast lay down, his heart simply stopped beating.

"That's such a beautiful story," Sarah said, as Tima helped the young woman comb and braid her honey colored locks. "Do you think, Redhawk could ever lose her heart like that?" Sarah finally asked.

Tima smiled and turned the young woman so they were facing one another. Gently grasping Sarah's chin, Tima looked with love at this woman who was quickly becoming a daughter of her heart.

"I think only you would know the answer to that question," she smiled knowingly.

Sarah looked away shyly from the woman's loving gaze. A thousand questions flew through her mind. Did she own Dev's heart that way…had the rider talked with her mother about this? Oh, Dev…how can I find out without losing what we already have?

The questions in her mind were halted when Little Dove rushed up to the pair of women as they sat on the ground. The young girl handed Sarah a soft, fawn colored buckskin dress and calf length moccasins. The dyed trim and the beadwork were more beautiful than anything Sarah had ever seen before.

Oh, Little Dove…I couldn't possibly accept this…it's too beautiful." Sarah said trying to hand the gift back. "I have nothing to give you in return…nothing as special as this."

Little Doves eyes shone and she dropped to her knees. "It would be a good exchange if you would give me your friendship in return."

Sarah smiled brightly at the young girl. "Little Dove, you don't have to give me anything for me to be your friend," Sarah smiled, placing her hand over the young girls.

Little Dove smiled crookedly, but looked as if she was having a hard time breathing. Sarah felt the pulse in the young girl's wrist, quicken at her touch. Uh Oh. Sarah had witnessed enough teenage boys react this way to recognize a crush when she saw one.

"Do you need help dressing?" Little Dove asked.

"No!" Sarah said a little more forcefully than she had intended. "Uhm, Tima will help me…thank you."

"Go now, girl," Tima ordered and Little Dove obediently ran off.

Sarah sighed deeply and looked over at Tima.

Tima laughed out loud at Sarah's new dilemma, and even though she wasn't Dev's birth mother, Sarah was struck with how much the older woman reminded her of the tall rider.

"I could be in trouble here, couldn't I?" Sarah asked, with a weak smile.

"It's to be expected when one is so beautiful," Tima laughed, as she helped the young woman into the Clan apparel.

Once Sarah was dressed she felt much more human, even though her stomach growled and she was still unsteady on her feet. When Tima helped her to stand, a wave of dizziness passed through her, and she grabbed the older woman's arms to keep from falling.

"Come, put your arm around me…perhaps I let you do too much, too soon." Tima said with reproach.

It finally filtered through to Devlin's resting unconscious, that the comforting feeling of the warm body next to her was gone. The sun was already seeping into the large tent through the top opening when the rider jerked herself awake. A fleeting moment of panic swept through the rider, quickly becoming fear. Jumping from the sleeping robes, she rushed from the tent, stopping dead in her tracks.

Devlin's breath became trapped in her throat, a small gasp the only sound she was able to make at the moment. Sarah walked along with Tima, the young woman's arm wrapped firmly around the older woman's waist. Tima had the girl pressed close to her, taking slow careful steps. Tima then said something to Sarah and the young woman laughed. Seeing Sarah in Clan garments was a shock to the rider's libido. Even with dark circles under her eyes and a little weight gone, the dark-haired woman thought Sarah the most beautiful creature she had ever laid eyes on. It was at that very instant, that Devlin fell in love with Sarah all over again.

Dev did something she rarely did…she acted without thinking. So moved by the vision of her Sarah healthy and alive, Dev practically ran to the woman and wrapped her arms around her.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," Sarah whispered in the riders ear, thoroughly enjoying the embrace.

Reluctantly the rider pulled away to look at the young woman, a gentle hand reaching up to stroke Sarah's face. Sarah smiled up at the expression of concern looking down at her, and moved her own hand up to cradle Dev's, lying against her cheek. Once again, Dev pulled the young woman into her arms, quickly leaning down to kiss the top of her head, then pulled back to look at her.

"How do you feel?" Dev finally found her voice enough to ask.

"Well, I'll probably drop like a sack of potatoes if you let me go, but all in all I really feel pretty good," Sarah replied, squeezing the taller woman's forearms.

"Then I won't let you go," Dev said softly, and the look in the tall woman's eyes almost convinced Sarah that she owned the wild, untamed heart of this Puma.

Dev managed to tear her eyes away from the vision in front of her long enough to help the young woman back into the teepee. Noticing Sarah still had a slight limp from where the horse fell on her, she gently helped her to sit down on the buffalo robes, Devlin relaxed next to her. A few minutes later, Tima entered with some tea, and a pot of stew that smelled wonderful to Sarah. There were no spoons, but Dev showed Sarah how to scoop up the thick stew with rolled pieces of flatbread.

After eating their fill both women thanked Tima, the older woman accepted their thanks gratefully.

"So what were you two up to while I was dead to the world?" Dev asked Sarah suspiciously.

"Your mother helped me take a bath, and I met a young girl named Little Dove who gave me the clothes I'm wearing." Sarah answered.

Dev raised an eyebrow in surprise. She knew Little Dove had one of those schoolgirl crushes on her, but she thought it best not to mention that to Sarah.

"I also learned that the people here consider modesty kind of low on the priority list, I tried to go with it," she said to a smiling Devlin. "Plus, everyone here keeps calling me a fish, but I didn't even know how to ask them about that," Sarah finished in a whisper.

Dev laughed out loud and promised to tell Sarah the whole story later.

"I also heard some rather amusing tales about a certain young warrior named Redhawk…" Sarah smirked at the rider.

Dev's face took on a gray sort of color as she attempted to glare at her mother. "Oh, you didn't," she said.

"I think I like the one about you, the skunk, and the bow and arrow best," Sarah began to enjoy the way Devlin was squirming.

"Tiana! You didn't!" Dev said, thoroughly humiliated at this point.

"You should have told me if you never wanted me to say anything," Tima said in her offhand way.

Dev shook her head and rewarded Sarah with a lopsided grin. "Just wait till I get a chance to talk to your sister."

Sarah laughed then suddenly grew serious. "Oh, Dev…how long have we been here, the children must be--"

Devlin silenced the young woman with her hand.

"It's okay. I sent a friend of mine with a message down to Hank. He's been staying at the Double Deuce riding the herd. He sent a message back yesterday saying everything was fine and he finished off the apple pie you baked before all this happened." Dev smiled at her large friend's humor. "I didn't want your uncle or the kids to worry, I didn't tell them about the injury, or you being so sick. I hope I did the right thing." Dev finished.

"Yes, that was perfect. I'm so glad we have someone like Hank around." Sarah replied.

Okay, now you need rest," Tima commanded, pushing Sarah's still weak body to a reclining position.

"Yep, she's your mom allright," Sarah teased the rider. "I feel like I've already been asleep forever."

"Would you like me to stay here with you? I mean, until you fall asleep?" Dev asked, not wanting to leave the young woman's side for a minute.

Sarah nodded, and as Tima left the lodging with a smile on her face, Dev lay down on her side next to Sarah, and explained all that the woman missed in the last few days. She told her the reason the Clan called her Salmon, and when Sarah begged for more, the rider told her stories of when she grew up with the Clan. Sarah could hardly contain the giggles when the rider told her about the 'skunk incident' from her point of view. Realizing she had talked in the past two hours more than any other time in her entire life, Dev looked over at Sarah, to discover the young woman had finally fallen asleep.

Dev had slept so long this morning she still wasn't tired, and so she rolled over onto her stomach and watched the woman of her heart sleep. She observed the gentle rise and fall of Sarah's chest and remembered when this, a woman such as Sarah for her life mate, and a comfortable lodging was all she ever wanted out of life.

For the next two days Sarah was only allowed to rest and recuperate. By the third day she put her foot down and Tima knew her patient was much better. Sarah had to give Dev a good "dressing down" in front of the other warriors of the Clan, just to get the rider to leave the young woman's side for a while. It seemed to do the trick; at least once a number of braves started laughing at the confused rider.

Sarah enjoyed the people of the Clan. She watched and learned, all the while under the ever present scrutiny of Little Dove. The young girl seemed to be wherever Sarah was, waiting for some small bit of attention the blonde might pay her.

Later in the day, Sarah returned to Tima's tent to find Devlin lying on the sleeping robes, her hands clasped behind her head. The rider's brow was furrowed as if she were deep in thought. She quickly sat up when she realized Sarah had entered the tent.

"Hi," Sarah said brightly as she took a seat next to the dark-haired woman.

"Well, you're talking to me, at least…that's a good sign." Dev said with an apologetic half-smile.

"I'm sorry about earlier, Dev. I just started to feel like you didn't trust me to do anything on my own. I hope I didn't embarrass you too much." Sarah said.

The smile turned into a smirk. "It's okay…I deserved it. I guess I've just been taking care of you and protecting for so many days here…well, I guess I forgot you're not a child."

Dev didn't dare tell the young woman what an actual embarrassment it was to be put in her place in front of the young braves who stood around watching. The rider tried to simply slink away after the lecture she'd received, but some of the young men were just too amused to let it go. Dev walked past her uncle, Kaylan, who couldn't resist.

"Redhawk," the older man called out. "That bit in your mouth must feel awfully uncomfortable with the reins held so tight like that!" Every man within hearing distance broke out into laughter, the rider growling under her breath, and abruptly walking in a different direction.

"I haven't even thanked you for everything you did for me Dev…I owe you." Was all Sarah could think to say in thanks.

Devlin reached out, and with the backs of her fingers, lay a feather-light caress across the line of the young woman's cheek. "For all that you've given me, Sarah…you'll never owe me."

Feeling like she needed to change the subject, Dev brought up the upcoming evening's festivities.

"Are you sure you feel up for tonight?" The rider asked.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world. I'm terrified I'll do something to embarrass myself, though. Will you be…uhm, there…with anyone?" Sarah asked coyly.

"I was thinking of taking a date," the rider leaned back and replied seriously.

"Oh," was all Sarah said. The young woman managed to remove the hurt from her voice, but not the crestfallen look on her face.

Dev continued to grin at the young woman, raising her eyebrows as if waiting for an answer. She indicated that she was waiting with her eyes, when Sarah looked up into her face.

"Ohhhh," Realization dawned bright. "Me?"

"Who else," Dev laughed, enjoying the pink blush that settled into the young woman's cheeks. "Oh, don't ever change, Sarah…you're too perfect just the way you are." She finished by touching the tip of her index finger to Sarah's nose.

Sarah shivered slightly, the cold night air a little chillier than she thought it would be. She was so tired, but she didn't want to miss the dancers. Tima told her when the young people danced tonight they would be telling a story, and Sarah had no intention of missing it.

Sarah and Devlin sat on one side of the Chief and his wife, Artamicha. Tima sat with one of her unmarried sisters to the Chief's left. Sarah chatted easily with Chief Kontonalah, finding his dry sense of humor refreshing, but there were times when she didn't know if he was serious or teasing her. She would look at Devlin and the rider would shake her head and smile, and admit that her grandfather loved flirting with pretty women.

Devlin caught sight of the small movement, as another shiver ran through Sarah's body.

"Hey, you're not trying to get a fever, are you?" Dev asked.

Sarah ran her hands up and down her arms.

"No, just a little chillier than I thought out here. I think I got spoiled from the last few days of warm weather." Sarah replied.

Dev hopped up from the ground. "I'll be right back," she said quickly.

True to her word the rider returned in a matter of minutes. "Here, this should help." She said, wrapping the rabbit and fox robe around the young woman's shoulders.

"Thank you, Dev," Sarah couldn't stop the yawn that followed. "I swear, it's not the company," she returned with a wry smile.

"You should probably be asleep by now…I don't even think you realize how sick you were, Sarah." Dev said with concern.

"Mmm mm," Sarah replied, shaking her head back and forth. "I don't want to miss the dancers."

Dev just smiled at the stubborn young woman. The rider's heart took over, not caring how it looked anymore.

"Then come here," she gently urged Sarah to sit in front of her, then pulled the woman back until Sarah's back was leaning against Dev's chest. "This way if you fall asleep, no one will know." She whispered into the young woman's ear.

Sarah felt the rider's warm breath against her, unable to stop the shiver of desire than ran through her from the moist kiss of air.

"Are you still cold?" Dev ran her hand along the side of Sarah's arm.

Sarah hardly dared to speak, she was certain her voice would betray the need there.

"No," she whispered.

Sarah turned; she had to see Dev's face. The two women gazed at one another until Sarah's hand reached up to push a stray lock of hair from across the rider's eye. God, how I love those eyes. Please, Dev…kiss me…right here, right now. She was held in place by the powerful pull of those blue eyes. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Sarah thought the rider was looking deep into the young woman's heart, seeing all that she felt there. Dev leaned toward her face.

Devlin, in the meantime, felt herself just as trapped within the viridescent gaze looking up at her. When the young woman's hand brushed across Dev's cheek, she thought she would melt from the intensity of the sensation. After a lifetime of staring into Sarah's crystal clear gaze, Dev thought she saw her own reflection, followed by a hint of passion in the green depths. Her heart knew what she was going to do before her brain did. All Dev knew was that she had to kiss this woman. She leaned her head towards Sarah's; so close she could feel the young woman's breath on her face.

"Salmon, can I get you some warm berry tea?"

Little Dove knelt expectantly in front of the pair of women. Sarah could feel the growl of frustration begin within the rider's chest.

"Little Dove…you and I need to talk," Dev said firmly.

The rider had watched for days as the young woman followed Sarah around, waiting for an opportunity to pounce. She had dismissed it as harmless, but while the woman is in my arms! She screamed to herself. Excusing herself from the warmth of Sarah's body, she literally dragged the kneeling girl off to one side.

Sarah never moved, she wondered if what almost happened was really about to happen or if it was all in her head. Was Dev jealous of the attention Little Dove was showing her? Maybe She's just trying to be nice and help me out, Oh God, Dev…couldn't you have just kissed me, just to at least let me know where I stand?

Sarah watched as Dev came back over and sat by her side, Little Dove going to sit with some girls her own age. The rider didn't seem like she was going to share what the two talked about, and Sarah was too nervous to ask.

Dev sat by Sarah in silence for what seemed like a few very long moments. She thought for certain that Sarah was acting very receptive to the idea of the rider almost kissing her. Dev could scarcely believe it herself. This is it…snap out of it. At least do something innocent enough that you can laugh it off if it turns out she slaps your face.

Dev sighed deeply and placed an arm around Sarah's shoulder. When the rider said the words, "Come back over here," Sarah knew there was no place on earth she would rather be.

Instead of just providing a shoulder for the young woman, Dev sat cross legged and pulled Sarah into her lap, wrapping the fur tightly around her, enjoying the feel of the young woman's back against her chest.

Dev's left hand rested on her own knee, until Sarah took a deep breath and boldly placed her hand on top of the rider's, entwining her small fingers within the grasp of Dev's larger, slender fingers. The smaller woman lifted the rider's hand, and positioned it around her own waist, still not releasing her grip.

Dev was nearly in shock at Sarah's seemingly fearless move. Suddenly the heat emanating off of both women became quite fierce. Sarah had an inkling that she just threw the rider for a loop, and she kind of liked the feeling. I want to know Dev…and dammit I'm going to find out.

Sarah leaned back against the rider's chest, her hair brushing against Dev's cheek. Devlin prayed that the young woman's actions weren't simply a display of friendship, because she knew this was the moment. There would be no turning back once she expressed how she felt. It would change things…a lot of things.

Turning her face into the sweet smell of Sarah's hair, she ran her right hand up the young woman's arm, gently squeezing her shoulder. She leaned in and meant to merely brush her cheek across the soft skin of Sarah's face, but the rider's body demanded more. Devlin's lips reached in and placed a feather light kiss on the young woman's ear. She waited a brief moment, her heart in her throat, waiting for any hint of revulsion from the young woman, now held tightly in her arms. When none came, she moved her caress to Sarah's neck.

Devlin's kiss was so tender and easy it felt like the beat of a butterfly's wings against Sarah's skin. Before the young woman even thought about what she was doing, her eyes closed and her grip on the rider's hand tightened. Then, she tilted her head ever so slightly, until she felt the earnest press of Dev's lips upon her skin.

Stopping was the last thing on Devlin's mind, especially after Sarah's encouraging body language, but she knew if she didn't slow down, she'd be throwing the beauty over her shoulder and carrying her off to a more secluded spot. That's not the way she wanted it to be with Sarah, not what she wanted for their first time together. Besides, a kiss and an embrace in the dark is one thing…commitment to someone like you…well, that's another, isn't it?

Dev let her mouth travel up to Sarah's soft hair, placing a gentle kiss there. Much to the rider's delight, Dev thought she heard a small whimper of protest from Sarah as her lips stilled their kisses. She wrapped both arms around the small woman's waist, trying to bring her breathing under control.

Sarah was enjoying the rider's kisses much more than she thought she ought to be. Her mind was a million miles away, until it brought her attention to a throbbing ache that was beginning to develop in a part of her body much further south. Suddenly the rider stopped and wrapped strong arms around the young woman, and Sarah thought this must be heaven. She leaned back against Dev and could feel the rider's heartbeat against her back; the rhythm as erratic as Sarah's own.

"You okay?" Dev whispered in her ear.

"Oh yea," Sarah said, her voice cracking. She could feel Dev's smile against her ear at her response.

"You?" Sarah asked the rider.

"Oh yea," Dev repeated, only her voice literally purred the response.

The dancers came on a heartbeat later, but by that point the two women were in their own private fantasies. Sarah remembered very little of the story the dancers told.

Just as Dev thought, Sarah was sound asleep by the end of the young dancer's story. She slept even as the talking and socializing of the evening was going on, safe in the rider's warm and loving embrace.

"Sarah," Dev whispered.

Sarah heard Dev's voice from somewhere in the warm cocoon of the rider's arms, but ignored the sound, snuggling further into the dark-haired woman's chest. Dev could only smile at the young woman.

"Sarah," Dev whispered again, this time drawing the woman's name out in a hot breath close to Sarah's ear.

The young blonde was definitely awake now as Dev helped the embarrassed woman to her feet, and they began to walk toward Tima's lodging.

Walking along in silence, Devlin reached out and brushed her fingers against Sarah's. The young woman felt her hand wrapped within the rider's gentle grasp, and once again Sarah was in awe at the tenderness. The rider's body was all hard muscle, but covered with soft female skin that had the feel of silk, and when Dev had kissed Sarah's neck earlier, Sarah had been amazed at the gentle ministrations. A woman, who could be as hard and unforgiving as the land around them, a woman who could kill a man with her bare hands had a caress as delicate and light as the first breeze of spring.

The two women stopped in front of the entrance to Tima's lodging, uncertain as to where they should go from here. Dev knew there would be no nights spent together from here on. Not until they could talk and Sarah was sure she knew what she was getting herself into. The rider wanted this woman, but not for a night, not simply to satisfy a need for physical pleasure. Dev could scarcely believe her own brain was generating these thoughts, they were ideas and feelings she'd never had for anyone before. She wanted Sarah in her life as well as her heart, and not for a day or even a year, but for the rest of their lives. But, she was still so afraid she couldn't be what the young woman before her wanted or needed.

Even as the tall rider processed all of these thoughts and feelings, they were being mirrored in the heart and mind of the quiet woman in front of her, whose green gaze looked up lovingly into Devlin's clear blue eyes.

"I think…maybe…I should find another place to sleep." Dev said haltingly. How do I tell her that lying next to her would be too much of a temptation now? God, I hope she understands.

"I think…" Sarah said looking down at the ground, then up at the rider once again, "…that might be a good idea." How do I tell her that sleeping next to her now would be agony? God, I hope she understands.

They stood that way, neither woman wanting to turn away, afraid the delicate spell of this evening would be broken.

"Here," Sarah said. Standing on her tiptoes, she took the rabbit skin robe from her own shoulders and placed it around Dev's. "If I know you, you'll curl up into a ball somewhere without even building a fire and be sick as a dog by morning."

The taller woman smiled, she enjoyed the idea of someone worrying about her this way. Reaching her arms around the slim waist, she pulled the smaller woman to her. Devlin wasn't prepared for the pure jolt of desire that swept through her when Sarah's body pressed against her own. Realizing if she didn't act now, they would be in serious trouble.

"You better get in there by the fire, I don't want you getting sick again." Saying that, she brushed her lips against Sarah's forehead, turned the young woman around, and pushed her gently through the entrance flap. Both women breathed silent groans of frustration.

Sarah smiled to herself, standing alone in the middle of the large tent. Well, at least we're headed in the right direction…I mean; we pretty much settled the 'are you interested in me' question.

"Kind of…" Sarah said aloud, knitting her brows together, realizing the pair had actually said very little to one another. To Sarah's mind it was as if she and Dev had talked all evening, but the reality was they hadn't really settled a thing. Oh, God…this is going to be a long night!

Dev walked until she left the camp, heading further up into the woods. Building a small fire, she lay down on the cold ground and wrapped the rabbit skin robe around her. She breathed in Sarah's scent that still clung to the fur, and the fragrance made her dizzy. Absorbing the warmth of the fire, she let her mind's eye fill with the vision of Sarah, letting her hand drift slowly between her legs. Her eyes closed, and she imagined the way she would love Sarah, her breaths getting shorter, and her legs parting wider. Finally, imagining it was Sarah's hand stroking her slick folds, she climaxed with a ragged moan. Oh, God…this is going to be a long night!

It was two days later when Sarah and Devlin were saying their good-byes to friends and family of the Clan. Sarah promised Tima they would bring her children for a visit soon, and the young woman made it clear to all her new friends that they were always welcome on her ranch.

It was a three-hour ride down to the valley, where the Double Deuce was situated. Sarah and Dev must have made an odd site. They both wore their clan garb, the only clothes they had, riding bareback on Alto. The golden mare wasn't used to the feel of her mistress on her back this way, but the proud horse simply took it all in stride. The animal had been experiencing a lot of firsts from her mistress since she had taken the smaller woman as a companion. Alto didn't mind too much. The smaller human always gave her a scratch in that special, hard to get spot, just under her chin. The mare shook her head and snorted. Humans didn't know how lucky they were to have those nice scratching things attached to their hooves.

Sarah wasn't very experienced at riding bareback, so Dev gave her a leg up and vaulted herself easily onto the horse's back, behind the young woman. Of course, Dev said it was to protect Sarah from falling, but with the rider's strong arms comfortably situated around the smaller woman, neither of them was about to complain.

With three hours one would have thought that the two women would have had a lot to discuss, but actually, they barely said a word. If only one of them had put voice to her musings the other would have responded in kind, but as it was each woman was lost in her own self doubts. Since Dev hadn't brought up their relationship, Sarah thought the rider had realized her mistake of the past week. In the meantime, Dev figured since Sarah hadn't said word one about what had transpired over the past week, the young woman had thought twice and obviously wanted a way out. If two hearts breaking could have made a sound, the noise would have been echoing off the hills.

The large cabin looked just the same. For some unexplainable reason, Sarah had thought it might look different. It seemed a lifetime ago since the day she took off for her uncle's ranch. Hot tears hid just beneath the surface as she felt Dev slip from behind her and dismount. Reaching up, Dev helped Sarah from Alto's back.

Devlin couldn't control her actions as she allowed Sarah's body to slide against her own, while helping the young woman from the saddle. Sarah surprised Dev even more by not releasing her hold from the rider's neck and shoulders. That's when their gaze met. The same stirrings of passion swept through both women, just as before.

It seemed like Sarah was always being the bold one in their relationship, and this time was no exception. The look in the rider's eye seemed to indicate Sarah's previous thoughts might have been amiss.

"I--I thought…you didn't want this…want me," she finished softly, unable to meet Dev's eyes.

"What?" Dev asked in amazement. "But, I thought you didn't…" she replied.

Devlin pulled the young woman to her in a fierce hug, shaking her head at the woman in her arms.

"Oh, Sarah, not wanting you couldn't be further from the truth. We've got to work on this communication thing, huh?" Dev asked sheepishly.

Sarah was still trying to process the fact that Devlin indeed wanted her.

Dev pulled back to tenderly stroke the young woman's face, trying desperately to convey what was in her heart, through her eyes. When Sarah finally smiled, the rider knew she had been somewhat successful. She leaned in, closer to Sarah, about to experience the young woman's lips first hand.

"Good, God!" Hank came around the corner. "I almost shot y'all."

The barrel of a Greener shotgun was leveled at the two women. Before Hank got any closer, Dev whispered in Sarah's ear.

"Some how, some way, sooner or later…I am going to kiss you Sarah Tolliver."

The two women exchanged a frustrated grin as they turned to greet their friend.

"You sure you don't mind stayin' here, Hank?" Dev asked, tightening the cinch on Alto's new saddle. The horse fidgeted a little at the familiar weight on her back.

"Nah, besides I think after the last time there's no way you wouldn't go with her." Hank grinned.

The two friends chatted amiably while waiting for Sarah. They all had a meal together, Sarah filling Hank in about her accident and the time in the Clan village. Of course, there were certain gaps in the story where Sarah intentionally left out bits of information regarding she and Devlin, but the large man suspected as much, and smiled politely. He had come upon the two women in an embrace and knew things must have changed between them. As to how far those changes went, he could only guess, since Devlin was being very closed mouth about the subject.

Sarah wanted to see her children and the rest of the family as soon as possible. There was no way in the world Dev was about to let her go off on her own again, at least not when coming so close to losing the woman was still fresh in the rider's mind. Hank agreed to stay on for another couple of days so they wouldn't have to rush back.

Dev slipped the Winchester rifle she saved from Telemachus' saddle, into the leather holster on the side of Alto's saddle. She carefully checked her pistols, noticing that their weight felt odd on her hips. The time she spent with Sarah in the Clan village, her guns had been tucked away in her saddlebags. It had been the longest she'd been without them strapped to her body in nearly twelve years. The rider had reason for her extra caution now.

Hank pulled her out of Sarah's earshot to tell her about the strangers that he caught watching the ranch. They weren't rustling cows, just hanging out up on the ridge watching the place. He explained that's why he had the Greener ready when he happened on Dev and Sarah returning. Dev didn't like the sound of it, smelled like somebody was setting something up, but she didn't know why, or who was being set up. Herself maybe…somebody with an old score to settle? Her belly clenched at the idea of dragging Sarah into a life like that, always worrying whether somebody with a grudge would want to take her on.

Sarah walked out of the cabin, dressed once again in riding garments.

"I owe Matt some pants after my last little jaunt," she smiled.

Hank excused himself, saying he'd go and saddle up another pony for Sarah.

Sarah watched as Dev ran her fingers through the long mane that was usually tucked up under her hat. The flames had claimed the rider's beloved Stetson when she had to burn all their clothes. Sarah had her own hanging down her back; the cord suspended loosely around her neck. In her hands she held a soft brown Stetson that showed it's age, but had been well taken care of.

"I know how hard these are to break in…I just thought…if you'd like to have this one," Sarah asked tentatively.

Dev looked at the hat Sarah held in her outstretched hands. She felt strange enough wearing some of the dead husband's clothes, but his hat. She just stared at the hat, looking extremely uncomfortable.

"It's not Peter's, Dev." Sarah said softly. "It belonged to my father."

Dev's eyes looked up into the green gaze that immediately made her knees weak.

"Sarah…I…" Dev was at a loss.

"It's okay if you don't want it," Sarah smiled, not wanting to push the rider.

"It's not that, but it belonged to your father…shouldn't it go to Matt…or--"

"I think my father would have wanted someone like you to have it, Dev…I think he would have liked you." She finished.

Dev reached out for the hat, pulling Sarah's hand toward her with the hat. With their bodies' inches away from one another, Dev smiled and leaned down to whisper in Sarah's ear.

"I think you're giving your father way too much credit, 'cause if he knew what I was thinking about his daughter half the time, he'd have wanted to shoot me…not shake my hand."

It was the first time that Dev had said anything at all that indicated what she wanted was a whole lot more than friendship from the young woman. Sarah felt the implication of the statement deep in her abdomen, then when Dev followed it up with one of her sultry smiles; the young woman was nearly on her knees.

Hank came around the corner with a saddled Appaloosa, once again interrupting the two women in the middle of an embrace. Dev quickly pulled away from Sarah, but not before catching the blush on the young woman's face.

"Your timing's perfect," Dev growled at her large friend in mock anger.

"Hey, I gave ya ten minutes by my pocket watch. If you can't kiss a girl in ten minutes, you're doing something wrong!" Hank replied good-naturedly.

Sarah couldn't keep from laughing. This time is was Dev's turn to start turning red.

"Well, look what the cat dragged over my way," Art Winston said to the two women.

"Uncle Art, what are you doing riding herd?" Sarah asked as she and Devlin pulled their mounts up next to the older man.

"Well, I can't let the young pups have all the fun," He laughed. "Actually, one of the younger fellas came down with a belly ache and a fever, with Hank over at your place, that left me."

"Sorry about that, why don't you let me take over out here, Mr. Winston," Dev said.

"What and let you have all the fun? Actually," he winked at the rider, "I think I forgot what fresh air and exercise was."

Dev smiled at the older man. Yep, I knew I liked this old bird for a reason. He's no stranger to hard work.

They rode a small way while Art chatted with his niece, who had become more of a daughter to him over the years. She told him of the accident she had on Telemachus and how Dev had rescued her. The young woman left out the part about how sick she'd become later.

"Guess I had you pegged right from the start, Dev…knew you were the only one that could keep up with her." He indicated Sarah with a jerk of his thumb.

The old man didn't miss the look that passed between the two women. He noticed right away, the hat that Dev wore. Art knew where it came from. It didn't seem to phase the old man much, but he'd been out in this wild land a long time, nothing much surprised him anymore. It was funny, how when you lived in an untamed country all the old rules just didn't apply anymore. Back in Kentucky, the boys would have hung Dev from the closest tree, hear in the Territory, he was thinking what a good match the rider made for his daughter.

What happened next became a blur in Sarah's mind. One minute she was listening to her uncle talk, the next moment his head jerked back, his body thrown from his saddle. It was almost as if the crack of the rifle came after, but Sarah knew it was the echo.

Dev didn't even look around; her whole body reacted to the sound. She flew across her horse hitting Sarah's shoulder, knocking them both to the ground. Dev rolled and took the weight of Sarah's smaller body hitting her own, the rider grunted when her back hit the dirt with a thud.

A looming cliff face shadowed over the pair as Dev checked the young woman under her.

"Sarah, are you okay?" Dev asked.

The young woman couldn't speak, her eyes looking past the rider to where her uncle lay. Dev looked up into the sun, determining that the shooter was somewhere in the rocks they were hiding under. Only one shot, though. The shooter was either moving into a new position to finish them off, or had already gotten what he came for and fled. Either way Dev needed to know.

The rider began to move away from Sarah, crawling on her belly, under Alto's patient body. The horse had reared at the shot, but stayed where her mistress could reach her. Dev reached the old man, placing her fingers against the pulse point at his neck. She looked back at Sarah who was intently watching her, hoping for some sign of life from her uncle.

The rider could only shake her head at Sarah.

Reaching the young woman again, Dev wrapped Sarah in her arms, the smaller woman shaking with rage and tears.

"Sarah, I need to go up there and take a look." Dev knew of no other way of saying it.

"No! Please, Dev, don't go." Sarah cried.

"We're sitting ducks here, I have to, Sarah. Please, honey…stay here." Dev replied.

The rider let out a low whistle and Alto came closer to the rocks. Standing up quickly, Dev slipped the Winchester from its leather holster, and handed it to Sarah.

"Point this like you mean to use it at anybody who gets here before me…even if you know them. Understand?" Dev asked.

Sarah nodded her head and the rider touched her cheek before climbing among the boulders and disappearing from view.

It didn't take long for Dev to reappear.

"It's okay," she pulled Sarah up and held her in a strong embrace. "They're gone now. Couple of cigarettes up there…like they were waiting."

"Dev, who could have wanted to kill Uncle Art?" Sarah asked between sobs.

"I don't know, honey…but I'm damned well gonna find out." Dev said as she held the young woman to her fiercely.

"Please don't look back there, Sarah." Dev asked the young woman. The rider had Sarah ride in front of her, on Alto. She wrapped a blanket around Art's body and carefully placed him over the Appaloosa's back, tethering Art's mare to the pony.

Sarah couldn't seem to stop crying, and Dev wrapped one arm around her tightly, the other held Alto's reins. They must have made for an odd looking pair, riding onto Winston land. Dev relinquished Sarah to her older sister's care, immediately organizing a posse to search for the shooters. Dev told them all she knew, which wasn't much, but she could tell there were two of them and they were headed for town.

The sun had already set by the time Dev and the posse returned to the ranch. The rider took a few tentative steps into the huge main house, putting propriety aside, to check on Sarah.

"Dev," Hannah squealed and jumped into the rider's arms.

"Hey there, Princess…where's your mama?" Dev asked, giving the girl a hearty hug.

"She's in bed…want me to show ya where?" Hannah replied.

"No, we better let her sleep, besides you should be in bed too." Dev said.

"Go on, she told me to send you up when you got back. I'm Madeline Harrington, by the way." The woman came into the room from the kitchen, extending her hand to the rider.

Dev shook hands with the stranger. She must have been a good five years older than Sarah was, the woman was taller too, but spoke in the same lilting drawl. She had long auburn hair and the same green eyes, that were red rimmed. It was obvious she had been crying.

"Sarah's already told me quite a bit about you Devlin. Did you find anything more out?" The woman asked.

Dev shook her head, wondering how much was quite a bit.

"Why don't you let Hannah show you upstairs, I know Sarah wants to know that you're allright. Then young lady," she pointed at Hannah, still in the rider's arms, "I want you to go to sleep."

Dev let Hannah down and followed the little girl upstairs. Opening the door, she noticed Sarah was in bed and asleep, a haggard look on the young woman's still face.

"Shhhh," Dev whispered, sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed, holding Hannah in her arms.

"Is Uncle Art dead, Dev?" Hannah asked.

The little girl's question surprised the rider.

"Yes, Princess."

"What's dead, Dev? I asked Aunt Mattie and Matt, and nobody will tell me. Is it the same thing as die? Is that what happened to my daddy?" The little girl asked earnestly.

Dev wasn't sure what she should tell the young girl, but she was certain Sarah wouldn't want her to lie to Hannah.

"Yes, sweetheart…they're the same thing." Dev answered.

"Does it mean you just go 'way?"

Dev smiled and kissed the top of the tiny girl's head.

"Well, it's kind of like you've got a little clock right in here," she placed the girl's hand on her own tiny chest, covering it with her own. "Feel how it ticks along?" Hannah nodded. "Sometimes the little clock just stops ticking…it slows down or it gets broke. When the ticking stops, then you're dead, but it's not anything to be afraid of."

"Will it happen to you…and mama?" Hannah asked seriously.

"Someday…but I hope not for a long while yet," she answered.

"Then mama will be an angel!" Hannah said triumphantly.

Dev let out a little chuckle. "I think your mother is already an angel, don't you?"

The tiny girl nodded her head and snuggled into the rider's embrace. When Dev looked up she ran right into a pair of green eyes so filled with love it almost knocked her from her seat.

"Hi," Dev said softly.

"Hi," Sarah repeated with a small smile.

Devlin deposited Hannah on the bed and walked over to a pitcher and bowl on the dressing table. She washed the trail grime from her face and hands, then knelt beside Sarah's bed, taking the young woman's hand in her own firm grasp.

"Are you crying 'cause Uncle Art is dead, mama?" Hannah asked as she climbed into her mother's embrace.

"Yes, honey," Sarah replied.

"But, Dev says you shouldn't be afraid of being dead."

Sarah smiled at her daughter and then up at the rider, who watched the two women of her heart.

"It's just that I'm going to miss him a lot, sweetheart." Sarah answered.

Hannah seemed satisfied with that answer and snuggled under the blankets.

"You look tired," Sarah whispered to the kneeling woman. "Come here and lie down with us for a while." Sarah finished, moving into the middle of the bed, and pulling Hannah with her.

"Sarah, I'm filthy from the trail," Dev answered.

"I don't care. I just want to feel you near me. Please, Dev." Sarah pleaded, tears filling her soft green eyes.

The rider had no intention of refusing Sarah anything, so she unlaced her borrowed moccasin boots and pulled them off, removing her guns and laying them on the table, then lay down on the soft bed on her side to face Sarah. Hannah squirmed slightly between the two women, while Dev ran slender fingers through Sarah's blonde locks, caressing the young woman's face with a gentle touch.

"Mama, when we go back home, can Dev stay with us…for always?" Hannah yawned sleepily.

Sarah and Devlin kept their eyes focused only on one another as Sarah answered the little girl.

"Is that what you'd like, honey…for Dev to stay with us…always?" Sarah asked, her eyes trained on the azure pair of eyes before her.

"Un huh," Hannah nodded with a smile, closing her eyes.

"Me too," Sarah admitted with a whisper, to her daughter as well as the woman who lay next to her.

Dev couldn't help the way the corners of her mouth curled up at Sarah's response. It was the first verbal admission from the woman that she did indeed want a future with the rider. Dev felt too many emotions to even speak. Sarah reached up and gently ran her fingertips across the rider's lips. Dev used her own hand to press the woman's fingers against her lips in a kiss, pulling Sarah's hand away slightly to place a gentle kiss in the palm of the young woman's hand.

As a declaration of love, it was an unexciting affair. Both women simply closed their eyes as sleep took them to another realm, the events of the day finally stealing over them.

"Sarah, what are you doing up so early?" Madeline questioned her sister. "Devlin told me you were rather sick after your accident."

Sarah gave her sister a wry smile. "Mattie, you know me. I can't stand letting people take care of me."

"Oh, right," her sister replied sarcastically, walking toward the window that Sarah stood in front of, taking in the sight that her younger sibling was fixed on.

Devlin stood casually with her hands resting on her hips, just above where her guns lay. She was speaking to a few men, obviously giving instructions on how to perform some task by the occasional gesturing of her arms. The tall rider glared a little at the men she was talking to, but when she finished and the men walked away, she looked up into the window that granted her access to Sarah's image. The rider's scowl was so quickly replaced by smiling blue eyes, Madeline swore she was looking at a different woman.

"Oh, right," Madeline repeated, letting the curtain fall back across the window. "Yea, you're definitely not one to let anyone take care of you." She smiled.

Sarah couldn't stop the blush or the look of satisfaction that appeared on her face.

"Does it bother you?" Sarah looked suddenly worried at her sister's reaction to her obvious affection for the dark-haired rider.

Madeline laughed. It was genuine and after a day of so much sadness it did both women's hearts good to hear it.

"Sarah…after living with you and father? Narrow minded is just not in me…especially when it comes to you, little one." Madeline placed her arm across her younger sister's shoulder and pulled her closer. "It's about time you had a little happiness in your life. Besides, I talked with her a little this morning and Devlin seems to care about you and the children a great deal. And I can see how taken with her Hannah and Matthew are." The taller woman squeezed her sister's shoulder.

"It's time you forgive yourself, Sarah. Not everything that happened when we were younger was your fault. Give yourself a break, okay?"

Sarah smiled at her older sister. "Why weren't we this way with each other when we were younger?"

"We were both too busy being spoiled brats! When it comes right down to it, I was too jealous of the way you got on with father, and you were too jealous of me and the time I had with mother." Mattie answered.

It's too bad we were such foolish girls," Sarah replied, "We would have been unstoppable together."

Again Mattie laughed. "Can you imagine? God, help Lexington if we had!"

Both women laughed and shared a sisterly hug before turning to the sound of a light rapping as the front door was opened. Dev walked through and Sarah thought how much taller and stronger the woman looked when inside the confines of four walls as opposed to standing on the open prairie.

The rider pulled off her hat and said good morning.

"Hey, you should be taking it easy," she touched Sarah's cheek in concern.

Sarah touched the rider's hand and brought her own up to Dev's face. The rider's eye took a nervous glance at Sarah's sister, who stood watching the pair.

Sarah pulled the rider's chin till her blue eyes met Sarah's own. "It's okay," Sarah said.

Devlin realized Madeline held nothing but love on her face for her younger sister. If Sarah's going to be open with her family about us, I'm sure as hell not going to act like she embarrasses me.

Dev smiled at the smaller woman and surprised Sarah by brushing her lips softly against the blonde's forehead.

"You had kind of a rough day yesterday…I don't want you out breaking ponies today." Dev smiled.

"Yes, Devlin," Sarah teased obediently.

"Devlin," Madeline called the rider's name as she held back the lace curtains to the window that faced the corral. "Do you know who that man is out there?"

Dev still held Sarah's hand and the two women walked over to where Sarah's sister stood. Mattie indicated a man in the midst of half a dozen riders entering the corral. Devlin tried to search the men's faces, but most of them began dismounting and pulling saddles from their mounts, their actions hiding their features.

"I can't tell who you mean, why?" Dev asked.

"There's a youngish man among them…he took sick yesterday, that's why Uncle Art rode herd. When I sent Chang out with some tea and broth for him, he said the man was gone. The trail boss, R.J., said that happens with young riders, they up and take off sometimes. I think it's odd he's back now. There…there he is by the barn."

Dev quickly looked over to where Mattie pointed. Sarah felt Devlin's hand tighten around her own.

"Dev, do you know him," Sarah whispered.

Devlin felt herself go numb at the sight of the younger rider. An image from her memory flashed brightly in her mind. She was being held down and pistol-whipped by the traitorous members of her gang after she had unsuccessfully tried to stop the rape of the young girl from the ranch in Pawnee. The man that hit the hardest and smiled the biggest stood chatting to the trail boss not fifty feet from her.

"Where are the children?" Dev asked quickly.

"Upstairs, they're all still in bed," Mattie answered.

Stay in here…both of you," the rider hissed.

Sarah didn't even bother arguing. She felt the emotions coming off the rider's body in waves. She and her sister drew back from the window, but only until they could still see the corral area.

Without her old boots and spurs, Devlin's feet hit the ground without a sound. The moccasins caused a mere whisper in the dirt. By the time she was standing behind the rider Mattie pointed out, R.J. was already speaking to her.

"Can you believe he rides out yesterday and wants a job again today?" He asked Devlin.

Dev didn't wait for recognition in the man's face. Devlin Brown wouldn't be a forgettable woman in any man's mind. The young rider could only pray the woman towering over him wouldn't be able to place him. He was so wrong.

Dev wrapped an iron grip around the rider's throat, the young man moving a petrified hand toward his holster. Dev squeezed her fingers tighter until the man was gasping for breath.

"Whatchya goin' for here?" She grabbed his gun hand by the wrist before it even touched the grip of his pistol. Rotating the wrist in her grip sharply, the man let out a sharp scream as the sound of his own bones snapping, filled his ears. Dev brought her knee up and drove it into the man's crotch, releasing her handhold around his throat as the man dropped, moaning, to the ground.

"Allright…let's start at the beginning." Dev drawled, grabbing the front of the young man's shirt and pulling him to his feet. The narrow gaze that burned blue fire and the feral smile that spread across the dark-haired woman's lips became a warning sign, as other riders backed up, so as not to become involved in the certain pain that was about to be inflicted.

"I'm gonna ask you this twice, 'cause I believe in givin' everybody a second chance. If I have to ask you a third time, I'm going to blow your kneecaps apart, one at a time." Dev pulled her pistol from its holster, cocking back the hammer in front of the trembling man's nose.

"Who hired you to set up the old man?"

When Sarah heard Devlin's question she knew what the rider suspected the young man of.

"I can't hear you…" Dev said to the man. His silence continued.

"One more time." She paused to let the ultimatum sink in. "Who hired you to set up the old man?"

"If I tell you, they'll kill me," he groaned in pain.

"Well, if ya don't tell me, I'll kill ya…and guess who's got ya now?" Dev sneered.

If the young man had any thoughts about the woman's humanity, and whether there really would be a third time, he squashed any chance he might have had by his next action. Rearing back his head, the man spit in the dark-haired woman's face.

Dev stopped all motion and wiped the spittle from her cheek with a gloved hand. When she raised her face to the young man, the smile on her lips unnerved him more than anything else she'd done to him so far. Lowering her right hand she pulled the trigger of her gun without even looking.

The man screamed in pain as the bullet ripped through his kneecap. His body crumpled in on itself and he lay in the dirt writhing in agony.

"Montgomery…Montgomery hired us." He cried out.

"That son of a bitch," Sarah screamed as she tore through the front door, on her way to the corral.

Dev turned when she heard Sarah's scream, realizing she had been watching the whole incident. The small woman ran straight for the nearest horse in the corral.

"Sarah!" The rider shouted.

Devlin raced the overwrought woman down just as she was about to leap on one of the already saddled ponies. The rider had to grab her around the waist and lift her, kicking, clear off the ground to stop her.

"Sarah, stop!" She pulled the smaller woman's body tight against her own, feeling Sarah's sobs convulse through her body.

"Think about what you're doing. If this is true, you'll be doing exactly what Montgomery wants you to do, going off half-cocked like this. Do you think if he was responsible for Art's death, he'll mind one little bit about blowing some woman's pretty little head off?" Devlin's words began to have an effect on Sarah. It was her final say that had the most impact.

"What would happen to Hannah and Matt…what would they do without you? What would I do without you, Sarah?" Dev's voice cracked slightly. "Let me take care of this…it's what I do best."

The click of a gun's hammer alerted the rider. Turning, Devlin saw into the beaten face of the man she just shot. She also looked straight into the barrel of his six-gun. The young man was still on his knees, but only twenty feet or so from where Devlin and Sarah stood. The rider immediately positioned her body in front of the smaller woman's. The man's gun was pointed directly at her chest, but his hands shook and he swayed from side to side.

"Did ya tell yer little girlfriend there how we fucked ya after we beat ya up?" a smug smile on the kneeling man's face indicated that he thought he had the upper hand now.

Dev's eyes narrowed, taking in the sound of Sarah's small gasp, but the rider's face remained as stoic as before. She merely watched the young man and the way he moved his body. She watched, waiting for the flaw to appear. It always did, if you were patient enough. That crease in time that allowed her to read the thoughts in a man's head before his brain could order the action taken.

The wind caught the barn door and it slammed against its frame loudly. The young man was good, he never turned his head, but his eyes jerked instinctively toward the sound, and Dev felt it was all the chance she was going to get. She drew one gun with dazzling speed and fired three rounds, slamming the young man's body against the barn wall, his own shot hitting the dirt to no avail.

The rider's eyes scanned the men that stood around, trying to elicit a feeling of whether there were any others that belonged to Montgomery in the crowd. Dev twirled the gun once and flipped it easily back into her holster. It wasn't a showy move; it had merely become habit over the years. Her thoughts immediately went to Sarah. Turning, she realized the young woman had never seen her kill anyone before. Dev wondered how it would affect her lover.

"Are you okay?" Sarah put her hands on the rider's waist.

Sarah was worried about her, how like her. "Yes," Dev answered. Not caring how it looked, she wrapped her arms around the young woman and held her close.

"What he said Dev…is it true?" Sarah whispered.

Dev replayed what the dead man had said before she shot him. Had she remembered? How could she ever forget the men who violated her on that day?

"Later…" Dev answered, knowing she would tell the woman in her arms the whole story, but not until they could be alone.

A scream from inside the house drew their attention in that direction.

"Sarah…Devlin!" Madeline shouted in near hysteria as the front door flew open with a bang.

Both women were already moving in that direction, but when they saw Matt's bleeding face come to the door, they took off at a run.

"My, God, Matthew," Sarah wrapped her arms around her sobbing son.

"I tried to stop 'em," the boy looked up at Dev, "I tried." Dev ran a concerned hand through the boy's hair. Matthew had a split lip and a narrow cut along his right cheek that actually looked worse than it was.

"They took Hannah," Mattie groaned.

It was as if the world had just stopped for Sarah. The hands that had been caressing her son's head stilled; suddenly there was no air to be had in the space around her. She turned to the rider at her side.

"Dev?" were the only words she could utter.

The rider immediately rushed up the stairs, taking them three at a time, her long strides eating up the distance between the first floor and the children's bedrooms. The room looked thrown about, the window remained open, a tall ladder still resting against the side of the large ranch house. A small knife held a piece of notepaper against the bedside table. Dev pulled the knife out and read the words, even as she felt her own heart being ripped apart.

"Dev?" Again the rider's name was the only question from Sarah's lips.

The rider handed the note to Sarah and held the small woman as her tortured cries echoed through the house.

The flames from the fireplace became the only illumination in the small den that belonged to Art Winston. Devlin leaned back on the long leather couch, one foot on the floor, the other resting along the length of the couch. Between her legs Sarah lay, wrapped in a wool blanket, her head resting against the rider's chest.

The grandfather clock chimed in the front parlor and Dev squeezed her partner in a gentle hug.

"Sarah, it's almost time, honey…we need to get up."

Dev eased her body up from the comfortable couch, finding it difficult to tear herself away from her lover's warm embrace. The note that was left in Hannah's room said the rider and Sarah were to meet a messenger at the entrance to the Winston ranch at nine o'clock in the evening. The messenger would give them instructions regarding what they would have to do to have the girl returned to them. As long as the messenger returned unharmed, little Hannah would remain unhurt.

Standing at the gates that indicated Winston property, Dev heard the rider come in long before he arrived. She lit a lantern and held it up, directing Sarah to stand back in the shadows.

"Here's my calling card…they said you'd recognize it." The young man said.

Dev looked at the material and recognized it as Hannah's frock.

"I sure hope that girl don't catch cold in her slip. That would make me very angry…and, you don't want to see me angry," Dev looked directly into the young man's eyes.

The man shifted uncomfortably in his saddle under the rider's icy gaze. He was starting to get a little apprehensive by the deathly calm that surrounded the rider. No one expected to come back from this job, so they all threw dice, he lost. He was waiting for the rider to pull her guns and blow him to hell, waiting so intently in fact, that it took him a few moments before he realized the rider was impatiently waiting on him to continue.

"Uh, yea…uhm, this is for the woman."

Dev reached her hand out. "I'll see she gets it."

"Nope," the man pulled his hand back. "She's supposed to take it from my hands."

Sarah stepped into the light and took the offered envelope. She opened it and scanned the documents, handing them to Devlin. The rider held them up to the light, noticing that they were deeds not only to Sarah's land, but also to Art Winston's. Montgomery was assuming that Sarah would be Winston's beneficiary.

"Tell the bastard I hope he burns in hell." Sarah said vehemently. Dev had never heard that vitriolic tone to Sarah's voice before; but then again she'd never seen the younger woman in her protective mode. Like a wounded grizzly protecting her cubs, Dev understood the look in Sarah's eye and the tone of her voice.

The young man tried to ignore the woman. "You're to sign the papers and bring them to town at midmorning. Just you and the rider," the young man now addressed Sarah. "You exchange the papers for the girl…no one gets hurt. You and your family go back to wherever you came from. Any funny stuff," he looked at Dev, "and the girl dies…you do anything different from the way I just told you, and the kid dies. Any questions?"

"No questions." Dev answered. She let the man turn and leave, as she and Sarah walked back to the house.

Everyone else had gone to bed, Sarah encouraged her sister to do the same. Dev tried to get Sarah to go upstairs, telling her there was little they could do till morning, but the young woman grabbed the rider's hand and led her back to the den and the warm fire.

"Sit with me?" Sarah asked.

Dev resumed her position on the leather couch, feeling only slightly better when she was once again holding the young woman in her arms. The rider had been fighting her own self loathing, cursing herself all evening for the ineffectualness that caused Hannah to be kidnapped.

After a long while of unbroken silence, Sarah murmured against Devlin's neck.

"Dev, can you talk about it…the day that man was talking about? Was he telling the truth?" Sarah asked softly.

Devlin rested her chin on the top of Sarah's head. She tried to avoid revisiting the memories of that day. Sometimes the images came to her in nightmares that often left the rider shaken and unable to return to sleep, sitting alone in the dark waiting for the sun to rise. It felt different now. Sarah had helped her to overcome some of those old demons by knocking down the walls around the rider's heart. She told Sarah in vivid detail the events of that day. How she was beaten, shot, raped repeatedly, then left for dead by the members of her gang, because she had attempted to stop the same from occurring to a young woman whose parents the out-of-control men had already killed. Dev told her of her second-in-command, Dale Karsten. He had waited for an opportunity to depose Devlin as the leader of the gang, and that had been it. She would always remember his face as the one who took her first.

By the time the rider's story was finished, Dev realized she had tears streaming down her face. Sarah sat up and beckoned the dark-haired woman into her embrace. And, as Sarah's arms enclosed around the woman whose heart belonged so completely to her, she felt Dev's silent sobs shake her body with their intensity. It hadn't been the pain nor the humiliation that the rider had kept to herself all this time, that tore at her heart the most, but rather the betrayal of her own men, some of whom she trusted with her very life.

"Sarah, I'm sorry I couldn't protect Hannah. I can't promise you that something like this will never happen again. There are always going to be people from my past that are going to want to hurt the ones that I love, just to get to me. That man I killed today…he was one of the men from my gang, and I'm afraid Montgomery has hired those men to help him with this land fight and to kidnap Hannah.

And, then the rider said something so out of character for her, she scarcely believed they were her own lips speaking the words. "Sarah, please don't leave me," Dev pleaded.

Sarah could now understand the fear Dev had of abandonment and betrayal. Everyone the rider ever loved had left her or had broken faith with her for one reason or another. Kissing her softly on a cheek still damp with tears, Sarah reassured the rider that she would love Dev no matter what the woman's past held or what darkness her future might bring to them. Sarah knew in her heart that she and Dev were destined to be together, forever. Although their pasts might intervene occasionally, and life might not always be easy for the two women, the headstrong young woman finally felt as if she truly had found the dark warrior of her soul.

"I'll never let you go, Dev…never." She whispered.

"Don't do it, Sarah!" Dev begged her lover.

Sarah sat at the desk that had been her uncle's, poised to place her signature on deeds, signing over the land to John Montgomery.

"Sarah, if you do this, then he wins." Dev said.

"Oh, Dev," Sarah said, her reddened eyes filling with tears, "he's already won. Who else should I wait for him to take from me? Matt, my sister…you?"

"Sarah…honey," Dev knelt in front of Sarah, looking into her eyes. "Do you think Montgomery's going to let us just ride away from this? Forget about me…do you think he can afford to leave you as a witness to what he's done? Sarah, do you trust me?" She waited until the young woman lifted her face and nodded.

"With your life…with the lives of your children?" Dev asked earnestly.

"Absolutely," Sarah answered without hesitation.

"Then I'm asking you to trust me now. Let's do this my way. I promise you, I'll die before I let anything happen to Hannah or you. Remember what you said to me that night, before I let you pull that bullet out of me? Well, I don't want to lose you either, but I need you to trust me, now." Dev finished.

Sarah stared at her own hands in her lap for a few long minutes, until she looked up into the cerulean gaze that swept her up in it's intensity.

"I trust you, Dev." Sarah said.

"I don't know how many there'll be, I'm guessing around twenty." Dev said to Hank as she slipped an object wrapped in a blanket under the seat of the wagon. The morning had been overcast, now the thunderheads began moving in.

The giant of a man stood next to his friend finalizing their plan. Half a dozen riders were sent over to the Double Deuce to run herd and take care of the ranch. Hank had returned as soon as word had come about Art Winston's murder. Dev asked for volunteers and picked a dozen men she knew as loyal to the old man, and that she herself trusted.

"Remember, these boys are cowhands, Dev, not gunmen." Hank reminded the woman.

"Hopefully it won't even come to anything like that. If it's Dale, he and I will end it right there. I'm betting if he goes down, the others will lose steam in a hurry. Then it's just a matter of showing we got a little firepower and tossing them out of town. Remember that they'll be too busy to watch the roads, but you'll have to be careful once you get near town. I'm sure Karsten will realize I'm not gonna let him waltz away, but Montgomery's stupid enough to be unpredictable. You'll have to sneak into town after Sarah and I get there. And another thing…make sure everybody understands that I'll kill the first man that starts anything before we have Hannah."

Dev ran her fingers through her hair and replaced her hat. The back of her head held a dull ache she knew was only caused by tension. She knew a gunfight now would be different. She admitted to herself that some of her edge was gone, now replaced with a need to live, a need to protect the people she cared about. When she was known as the fastest gun in the Territory, she cared about no one, least of all herself. She was good for a simple reason, she didn't care whether she lived or died. Now, she had a reason to care.

"Other than me, Sarah is going to be the only one they'll allow to get close enough to Montgomery or Karsten." Dev looked down at the object she'd placed under the wagon's seat. "Frankly, she's a better shot than you or me." Dev gave a wry sort of smile.

"But if anything happens to me…I don't care what else happens, Hank, but promise me you'll get Sarah and Hannah out of there."

The large man gripped his friend's hand tightly. "You can count on me, Dev."

Then both riders did something completely out of character. They shared a short, but heartfelt embrace.

Devlin told Sarah on the way to town, the way she wanted it to go. The young woman was quiet, but she knew no amount of arguing could keep Dev from doing this. Besides, she had agreed to trust the rider with her child's life, and she meant it.

"Sarah, I'm going to ask you to do something I never wanted to ask you, and hopefully it won't even become necessary." Dev said.

"Anything, Dev."

Sarah said it so quickly, with such strength of conviction that Devlin had to look at the woman in pure wonder. The unconditional love this young woman offered was amazing to the rider.

"What one thing did I do right in my life, to be able to deserve you?" The rider asked, touching a gloved hand to Sarah's cheek.

The love and adoration emanating from the rider's deep blue gaze, would always be enough for Sarah. She prayed to every God of the white man and Great Spirit of the clan that she knew of, asking only for the safety of her children, and this woman that she loved.

Dev's hand returned to the wagon team's reins, a worried expression remained on her face.

"Sarah, I know you don't want to think about it, but we need to plan for the eventuality that something might happen to me." Dev said.

"I know," Sarah replied sadly.

"If Karsten takes me down, they're not going to want to let you and Hannah out of there. God, how do I say this to her. They'll know you're…with me, I mean, they'll think you've been with me…"

"And, they'll want to hurt me because of that," Sarah finished for the relieved rider.

"I'm afraid of what they'll do to you," Dev said, barely above a whisper.

"So what should I do?" Sarah asked, circling her hand around the rider's arm.

"If Karsten is dead, there's not much chance Montgomery will have the jewels to order anybody around. And, hopefully by that time Hank and the boys will show up. Sarah, feel what's under your seat."

Sarah reached under the wooden seat and felt a blanket wrapped around a long, heavy object. She recognized her Winchester immediately.

"If Karsten kills me, you'll need to…buy yourself some time, then you and Hannah take off in the wagon. Hank should be there by then, but I can't depend on that. Besides, you'll be the only one close enough to…" Dev couldn't bring herself to say the words of what she was asking Sarah to do.

"I'll have to kill Karsten myself if we're to get out of there alive." Sarah said slowly.

The look of pain that settled on Dev's face nearly broke Sarah's heart. The young woman leaned her head against the rider's shoulder.

"We'll be okay, Dev," she whispered as she leaned over and kissed the rider's cheek. "We'll be okay."

They rode, not speaking for quite a while, each woman lost in her own thoughts. Finally Sarah broke the silence.

"How did you know, Dev…when that young man was going to shoot you yesterday. How did you know right when to draw on him? Is that what makes you so good with a gun?"

"Patience is the biggest part of it," the rider replied as calmly as if she were giving a math lesson. "You have to let yourself go to anything else that might be happening around you, only focusing on the person in front of you. If you're patient, and you watch close enough you'll see the flaw."

"The flaw?" Sarah questioned.

"It's hard to describe, but everyone does it in some way. They telegraph their intentions…kind of like their body lets you know what they're going to do, before their brain has even let them in on it. Sometimes it's a twitch of a facial muscle, or the tic of an eye…sometimes it's not even as obvious as that. Sometimes it's just a look in a man's eye that's different from the other looks he's been giving you. And, sometimes…well, sometimes you just get lucky." Dev finished as the town loomed before them.

Thunder grumbled and roared from a great distance. Heat lightning flashed from up in the hills, as the air turned heavy.

Part 4 (Conclusion)

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